OUR BIBLE & THE ANCIENT MANUSCRIPTS by SIR FREDERIC KENYON - formerly Director of the British Museum - © Sir F Kenyon 1895. First published Eyre & Spottiswoode 1895. - fourth edition 1939. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.

Chapter II:


HOME | Contents | Various Readings | The Variorum Bible | Examples of Important Variations | The Origin of Variations in the text | The Mistakes of Copyists: Error of Hand & Eye | Errors of Mind | Errors of Deliberate Alteration | Early Manuscripts the Most Likely to be Free from Error | The Method of Recovering the True Text | Textual Errors do not endanger Doctrine

Various Readings.

WE now have to consider what happened to the text of ancient writings during the period when they were transmitted by handwritten copies; and in so doing we shall have to explain what is meant by the phrase "various readings," which recurs frequently in the discussion of the text of the Bible, or indeed of any ancient book. No one can read our English Revised Version intelligently without seeing that in very many places there is considerable doubt as to the exact words used by the original writers. On nearly every page, especially of the New Testament, we see notes in the margin to the effect that "Some ancient authorities read" this, or "Many ancient authorities read" that - these readings being alternatives to the readings actually adopted in the text of the Revisers. The question inevitably follows. What are these "ancient authorities"? How comes it that they differ so frequently among themselves? How do we, or how does anyone, know which to follow among these divergent witnesses?

The Variorum Bible.

The difficulties suggested by the various readings in the Revised Version are made more prominent if we look at such an edition as the Variorum Bible. [This is, I believe, the only critical edition of the Bible in English. It gives a digest, under the head of "Various Renderings," of the translations or interpretations proposed by the best commentators in doubtful passages, and, under the head of "Various Readings," of the more important variations of the principal manuscripts, versions, and editions. The names of the editors (Professor Driver and Professor Cheyne of the Old Testament, Professor Sanday and the Rev. R. L. Clarke of the New Testament, and the Rev. C. J. Ball of the Apocrypha) are guarantees for the excellence of the work. The surest results of Biblical criticism, up to a recent date, are thus made accessible to English readers in a clear and compact form, and since the present book is intended primarily for those who study the Bible in English, reference will generally be made to the notes of the Variorum Bible, rather than to the critical editions of the Hebrew or Greek text.] Here we find the several "ancient authorities" quoted separately whenever there is any important conflict of evidence as to the exact reading of any passage. Thus at Matt.xix.17, to the words "Why callest thou Me good?" there is the following note: "So C Δ, Pesh. Theb. Mcl. Rmarg.; Why askest thou me concerning the good? א B D L, Al. La. Ti. Tr. We. WH. R." The meaning of this note is that there are two divergent readings recorded in this passage. The manuscripts known as G and Δ (which will be found described in Chapter VII), two ancient translations of the New Testament into Syriac and Coptic, the editor McClellan, and the margin of the Revised Version, read "Why callest thou Me good?" On the other hand, the four manuscripts א, B, D, L, the editors Alford, Lachmann, Tischendorf, Tregelles, Weiss, Westcott and Hort, and the text of the Revised Version, have "Why askest thou Me concerning the good?" To the student acquainted with these critical symbols, this information is intelligible and important; but unless we have some previous knowledge of the subject we shall not understand the comparative value of the various authorities quoted. The indispensable information is given in the preface and introduction to the Variorum Bible; but, although stated with admirable completeness and conciseness, it is necessarily brief, and it may occur to many to wish to know more about the authorities on which our knowledge of the Bible rests. It is all very well to say that such-and-such manuscripts support one reading of a passage, while other manuscripts support another; but we are no better able than before to judge which reading is to be preferred unless we know which manuscripts are most likely to be right. The questions asked above recur with doubled force: How do there come to be differences in different records of the Bible text, and how do we know which reading to prefer when the authorities differ?

Examples of Important Variations.

Mentioning a few of the passages in which important variations are found may see that these questions are neither idle nor unimportant. We will take, for the moment, the Gospels alone. The Doxology of the Lord's Prayer is omitted in the oldest copies of Matt.vi.13; several copies omit Matt.xvi.2, 3 altogether; a long additional passage is sometimes found after Matt.xx.28; the last twelve verses of St. Mark are omitted altogether by the two oldest copies of the original Greek; one very ancient authority inserts an additional incident after Luke vi.4, while it alters the account of the institution of the Lord's Supper in Luke x.19, 20, and omits altogether Peter's visit to the sepulchre in xxiv.12, and several other details of the Resurrection; the version of the Lord's Prayer in Luke xi.2-4 is much abbreviated in many copies; the incident of the Bloody Sweat is omitted in x.43, 44, as also is the word from the Cross,. "Father, forgive them," in xi.34; the mention of the descent of an angel to cause the moving of the waters of Bethesda is entirely absent from the oldest copies of John v. 4, and all the best authorities omit the incident of the woman taken in adultery in vii.53-viii.11. 

Besides the larger discrepancies, such as these, there is scarcely a verse in which there is not some variation of phrase in some copies [In Appendix I at the end of this volume will be found a selection of one hundred of the more important various readings in the Gospels and Acts, in which books such variations are most numerous. This will give the reader some idea of the issues involved, and an outline of the evidence relating to them.]. No one can say that these additions or omissions or alterations are matters of mere indifference. It is true (and it cannot be too emphatically stated) that none of the fundamental truths of Christianity rests on passages of which the genuineness is doubtful; but it still remains a matter of concern to us to know that our Bible, as we have it to-day, represents as closely as may be the actual words used by the writers of the sacred books. It is the object of this volume to present, within a moderate compass and as clearly as possible, the means we have for knowing that it does so; to trace the history of the sacred texts from the time of their original composition to the present day; to show the authorities on which they rest, and the comparative value to be put upon each. It is the special duty of scholars to weigh the evidence on each particular disputed passage, and to form editions and translations of the sacred books; but any intelligent reader, without any knowledge of either Greek or Hebrew, can learn enough to understand the processes of criticism and the grounds on which the judgments of scholars must be based. Nor is the subject dry or uninteresting. The history of the Bible text has a living interest for all those who care for its contents; and no Englishman should be altogether ignorant of the history of the English Bible.

The Origin of Variations in the Text.

How then do various readings of a passage come into existence? It is a question easily answered, so soon as the character of ancient books is understood. Nowadays, when an author writes a book, he sends his manuscript or typescript to the printer, from whom he receives proof-sheets; he corrects the proof-sheets until he is satisfied that it is printed accurately; and then hundreds or thousands of copies, as the case may be, are struck off from the same types and distributed to the world. Each one of these copies is exactly like all the rest, and there can be no varieties of readings. All the extant copies of, say, any one edition of Macaulay's History or Tennyson's Poems are identical. Tennyson may have himself altered his own verses from time to time, and so have other authors; but no one doubts that in each edition of a modern book we have (slips of editor or printer excepted) exactly what the author intended at the time, and that each copy of it is exactly like every other copy. But before the invention of printing this was far from being the case. Each separate copy of a book had to be written by hand; and the human hand and brain have not yet been created which could copy the whole of a long work absolutely without error. Often (and this we may easily believe to have been especially the case in the early days of the Christian Church, when it was a poor, half-educated, and persecuted body) copies were made hurriedly and without opportunity for minute revision. Mistakes were certain to creep in; and when once in existence they were' certain to increase, as fresh copies were made from manuscripts already faulty. If the original manuscripts of the sacred books were still preserved, the errors of later copies would be to us now a matter of indifference; but since the original manuscripts perished long ago, we have to try to arrive at their contents by a comparison of later copies, all of which are more or less faulty and all varying from one another. This is the problem of textual criticism, and it will be seen that its sphere is large. Printing was invented about 1450, less than five centuries ago; but for all the centuries before that date, books existed only in hand-written copies, which we call manuscripts (from the Latin manu-criptum=  written by hand," often abbreviated as "MS."). Of the chief of these manuscripts we shall have to speak at greater length in the course of this book. Meanwhile it will be clear that the existence of differences of reading in many passages of the Bible as we have it to-day is due to the mistakes made in copying them by hand during the many centuries that elapsed between the composition of the books and the invention of printing.

The Mistakes of Copyists.

i. Errors of Hand and Eye.

The mistakes of scribes are of many kinds and of varying importance. Sometimes the copyist confuses words of similar sound, as in English we sometimes find our correspondents write there for their or here for hear. Sometimes he passes over a word by accident; and this is especially likely to happen when two adjoining words end with the same letters. Sometimes this cause of error operates more widely. Two successive lines of the manuscript from which he is copying end with the same or similar words; and the copyist's eye slips from the first to the second, and the intermediate line is omitted. Sometimes a whole verse, or a longer passage, may be omitted owing to the identity of the first or last words with those of an adjoining passage. Sometimes, again, the manuscript from which he is copying has been furnished with short explanatory notes in the margin, and he fails to see where the text ends and the note begins, and so copies the note into the text itself.

2. Errors of Mind.

These are all simple errors of hand and eye. Errors of the mind are more dangerous, because they are less easy to detect. The copyist's mind wanders a little from the book he is copying, and he writes down words that come mechanically into his head, just as we do nowadays if people talk while we are writing and distract our attention. Some words are familiar in certain phrases, and the familiar phrase runs off the pen of the copyist when the word should be written in some other combination. A form of this error is very common in manuscripts of the Gospels. The same event is often narrated in two or more of them, in slightly different language; and the copyist, either consciously or unconsciously, alters the words of the one version to make them the same as those of the other. A careful reader of the Variorum Bible or the Revised Version will note many instances where this has happened. Thus in Matt.xi.19 the Authorised Version has "But wisdom is justified other children," as in Luke vii.35; but the Revised Version tells us that the original text had "works" instead of "children" here, the truth being that the copyists of all except the earliest extant manuscripts have altered it, so as to make it correspond with the account in St. Luke. Similarly in Matt.xvi.13, our Lord's question runs (in the R.V.) "Who do men say that the Son of Man is?" and the margin tells us that "Many ancient authorities read that I, the Son of Man, am; see Mark viii.27, Luke ix.i8." In Matt.xi.14 a whole verse has probably been inserted from the parallel passages in Mark and Luke; and so with Mark xv.28. In Luke vi.48 the concluding words of the parable of the house built on the rock, "because it had been well builded," have been altered in "many ancient authorities" in accordance with the more striking and familiar phrase in St. Matthew, "for it had been founded upon the rock." Errors like these increase in the later copies, as the words of the sacred narrative are more and more familiar to the copyists; and when once made they do not admit of correction, unless we are able to examine copies written before the corruption took place. They do not betray themselves by injuring the sense of the passage, as is generally the case with errors of the first class.

3. Errors of Deliberate Alteration.

An untrue hand or eye or an over-true memory may do much harm in a copyist; but worst and most dangerous of all is it when the copyist begins to think for himself. The veneration in which the sacred books were held has generally protected them against intentional alterations of the text, but not entirely so. The harmonisation of the Gospel narratives, described in the last paragraph, has certainly been in some cases intentional; and that, no doubt, without the smallest wish to deceive, but simply with the idea of supplementing the one narrative from its equally authentic companion. Sometimes the alterations are more extensive. The earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament contains several passages in the books of Esther and Daniel, which are not found in the Hebrew. The long passages, Mark xvi.9-20 and John vii.53-viii.11, which are absent from the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament, must have been either omitted in these or inserted in the others intentionally. If, as is more probably the case, they have been inserted in the later copies, this was no doubt done in order to supplement the Gospel from some other good source, and the narratives are almost certainly authentic, though the Evangelist in whose Gospel they now appear may not have written them. There is, however, no reason at all to suppose that additions of this kind have been made in any except a very few cases. The evidence for our Bible text is too great and of too varied a description to allow us to suppose that passages have been interpolated without any sign of it being visible. The intentional alterations of scribes are, for the most part, verbal, not substantial, such as the modifications of a phrase in one Evangelist to suit the narrative of another, or the combination of two reports of some utterance into one; and errors of this kind can generally be detected on a comparison of several different manuscripts, in some of which the alteration will not have been made.

Early Manuscripts are the most likely to be Free from Error.

From this short account of the different classes of mistakes into which the copyists of manuscripts were most liable to fall, it will be clear that the later a manuscript is in date the more likely it is to contain many errors. Each time a fresh copy is made, some new mistakes will probably be introduced, while only the most obvious blunders in the manuscript copied will be corrected. It may therefore be stated as a general rule that the earlier a manuscript is the better is its text likely to be. The rule is only a general one, and is liable to exceptions; for instance, a manuscript written in the year 1200, if copied direct from a manuscript of the year 350, will probably be more correct than a manuscript written in the year 1000, which was copied from one written in 850 or 900. Each manuscript must therefore be searched, to see if it shows signs of containing an early form of the text; but the general rule that the earliest manuscripts are the best will still usually hold good.

The Method of Recovering the True Text.

The problem which lies before the textual critic, as the student of the language of the Bible is technically called, is now becoming clear. The original manuscripts of the Bible, written by the authors of the various books, have long ago disappeared. The critic's object, consequently, is to reconstruct the text of these original manuscripts by a comparison of the later copies which have come down to us; and the difficulty of his task depends on the age and number of these copies which he is able to compare. A diagram will make the position clear.

    b       c  
    d   e     f   g  
  h I j   k l m n   o
p q r s t u v w x y z

Here A represents the original author's copy of a book;
and c are copies made from it;
d, e,f, g
are copies made from b and c; and so on. Some errors are sure to be made in b and c, but not the same in each;
will correct a few of those in b, but will copy the rest and add more; e will both correct and copy different ones, and so will f and g and all the subsequent copies. So, as time goes on, the number of errors will go on increasing, and the extreme copies diverge from one another more and more. Sometimes a copyist will use two manuscripts to copy from (for instance, we may suppose the writer of p to have copied from n as well as from h), and then the errors of two different lines of descent will become mixed. At some stage in the history of the text perhaps some scholar will compare several copies, correct what he thinks are mistakes in them, and cause copies to be made of his corrected text; and then all manuscripts which are taken, directly or indirectly, from these corrected copies will bear the stamp of this revision, and will differ from those of which the line of descent is different. Now suppose all 'the manuscripts denoted by the letters in the diagram to have disappeared (and it must be remembered that by far the greater number of copies of any ancient book have perished long ago), except p, /, and y. It is evident that none of these copies will contain exactly the true text of A; each will have diverged from it, but each will have diverged differently. Some mistakes they may have in common, but in most (they will differ; and wherever they differ it is the business of textual criticism to determine which manuscript has the true reading, and so to try to re-establish by comparison the original text of A.  

Such, but infinitely complicated by the number of manuscripts of the Bible which have come down to us, and by the long lapse of years since the originals were written, is the task of the scholars who try to restore to us the exact words of the sacred books. The object of the chapters which follow is to show in more detail the nature of the problem in respect to the Old Testament and New Testament respectively; to state what is known, or plausibly conjectured, concerning the history of their text; and to describe the principal manuscripts of each, and the other means available for the detection of mistakes and the restoration of the truth. The story is not so technical but that all may understand it, and all can appreciate the interest and value of the minutest study of the true Word of God.

Textual Errors do not Endanger Doctrine.

One word of warning, already referred to, must be emphasised in conclusion. No fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading. Constant references to mistakes and divergences of reading, such as the plan of this book necessitates, might give rise to the doubt whether the substance, as well as the language, of the Bible is not open to question. It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain. Especially is this the case with the New Testament. [Dr. Hort, whose authority on the point is quite incontestable, estimates the proportion of words about which there is some doubt at about one-eighth of the whole; but by far the greater part of these consists merely of differences in order and other unimportant variations, and "the amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation ... can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text" (Introduction to The New Testament in the Original Greek, p. 2).] The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world. Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of Sophocles, of Thucydides, of Cicero, of Virgil; yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of manuscripts, whereas the manuscripts of the New Testament are counted by hundreds, and even thousands. In the case of the Old Testament we are not quite in such a good position, as will be shown presently. In some passages it seems certain that the true reading has not been preserved by any ancient authority, and we are driven to conjecture in order to supply it. But such passages are an infinitesimal portion of the whole and may be disregarded. The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.